The entry box at Churchill Downs doesn't close until 10 a.m. on May 2, but as this is written it appears the 127th Kentucky Derby (gr. I) will be renewed without an entry from the barn of D. Wayne Lukas, who has run more horses in the race -- 38 -- than any trainer in history. Lukas has had at least one runner in the Derby for 20 consecutive years, beginning in 1981 when Partez ran a surprisingly strong third as part of the mutuel field.
That first attempt was as close to victory as Lukas would get until 1988, when Winning Colors went wire to wire to become only the third filly in history to win the roses. The victory drought wasn't for lack of trying. As he tightened the girth on Winning Colors in the Churchill Downs paddock that day, Lukas was saddling his 13th Kentucky Derby starter. At that point, only H.J. (Derby Dick) Thompson (24), James Rowe Sr. (17), and Max Hirsch (14) had sent more horses postward in the Derby. Woody Stephens was saddling his 13th and 14th Derby runners that year, with one of them, Forty Niner, putting in a strong rally that fell just a neck short of Winning Colors at the wire.
The emphasis that Lukas placed on the Derby did not go unnoticed. Critics suggested a number of his starters didn't belong in the race or were rushed to make the Derby after suffering physical setbacks. Among those cited were Total Departure, a pure sprinter who finished last of 20 in 1983; Althea, the brilliant filly who finished 19th the following year; and Capote, the 1986 2-year-old champion who got behind in his training and had two poor prep races before being eased in the 1987 Derby.
The criticism didn't deter Lukas, who used the power of positive thinking whenever he talked about his Derby candidates each spring. From the way he spoke, Lukas never saddled a Derby runner he didn't think could win.
After the victory by Winning Colors, Lukas had another dry spell in the Derby that lasted until 1995, when Thunder Gulch and Timber Country tag-teamed the Triple Crown, the former winning the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes (gr. I), while the previous year's 2-year-old champion, Timber Country, won the Preakness Stakes (gr. I). Those victories came one year after Tabasco Cat took the Preakness and Belmont, silencing many critics who lambasted Lukas in 1993 when Union City (15th in the Derby) was euthanized after breaking down in the Preakness.
Since then, Lukas has won with Grindstone (1996) and Charismatic (1999), bringing his total to four Kentucky Derby winners, zero seconds, five thirds, and 29 out-of-the-money finishes from 38 runners. Only Ben A. Jones, with six winners from 11 starters, has won more Derbys. The aforementioned Thompson also won four.
Lukas probably would be the first to admit that at times you really have to push a 3-year-old to be ready for the spring classics. A number of talented colts trained by the 1999 Hall of Fame inductee never made it to the starting gate on Derby Day, perhaps because he pushed them too hard. Grindstone never raced again after his Derby win, and six of Lukas' other 37 Derby runners made just one additional career start. Only 18 of his 38 Derby starters raced as 4-year-olds. As a group, these 38 horses made more career starts before the Derby (359) than they did after the first Saturday in May of their 3-year-old campaigns (344).
However, 20 of the 38 Lukas runners went on to win a stakes race after competing in the Kentucky Derby, 14 of them in grade I competition. That's an impressive number of horses winning at the highest level, and it's a feat that many of the Lukas critics (this writer included) may not have noticed during this remarkable 20-year run.
With or without the white-bridled Lukas horses, they'll run the Derby again this year. But it will feel a little different if he isn't part of the show.